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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Genius of Faulkner

John Jeremiah Sullivan has written an article on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom in the New York Times magazine
A poll of well over a hundred writers and critics, taken a few years back by Oxford American magazine, named William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” the “greatest Southern novel ever written,” by a decisive margin — and the poll was conducted while looking back on a century in which a disproportionate number of the best American books were Southern — so to say that this novel requires no introduction is just to speak plainly.

Perhaps not only the greatest American novel ever written; but one of the world's best comparable to the best of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, authors that have produced novels with the same complexity, depth of characterization,and historical context.  Comparisons with Joyce’s Ulysses are frequently and legitimately made perhaps more for their stream of consciousness style than content.  Perhaps more than anything, Absalom is not only a Southern novel, it is Southern history.  Most importantly it is a story about America:
One of the most perceptive recent statements on “Absalom, Absalom!” was made by the scholar Fred C. Hobson in 2003, a simple-seeming statement and somehow one of the strangest things a person could say about the book, that it is “a novel about the American dream.”
Anyone visiting Mississippi cannot help but be impressed by the story of plantation owners, like Faulkner’s fictional Thomas Sutpen, who came from the East to realize great wealth from the rich bottom land of the Delta.  Many of these planters came from tobacco lands in Virginia and North Carolina which, because of over-farming, had lost their productivity; and others, like Sutpen, made the journey from the mountainous backwoods.  In all cases, they had to clear the land of cypress and thick semi-tropical underbrush; remove stumps, rocks, roots, and the natural detritus of the forests and swamps; clear swamps; and finally till the new land.  It was a herculean task, all done with the sweat of manual labor, usually by slaves that the planters had brought with them from their old plantations. 

Visitors are impressed not only because of the physical labor of clearing virgin land, but the entrepreneurial will that moved men to undertake long journeys through undeveloped country – through forests, swamps, mountains, land infested with insects, snakes, wild animals, alligators, and disease, and vulnerable to Indians and bandits.  These men could have stayed in Virginia – and many of them did – but they chose to risk the journey, and the malaria, dengue, and yellow fever to get to the Delta.

This was early America (Sutpen moved to Mississippi in 1833) – an America still wondering at the vast new lands opened by the Louisiana Purchase only twenty years earlier, touched by Manifest Destiny, and with the desire and indomitability of the earliest settlers.  What moved these new Southern planters is what still moves America – the desire for wealth, more wealth, and still more wealth.  The development of the Delta is just a microcosm of America and the rapid, inexorable move West.  Less than 150 years passed until the last of the continental United States territories were incorporated as states.

Faulkner makes a set of choices, in reconstructing Sutpen’s past, that ought to draw our attention. He tells us that Sutpen’s Ur-ancestor probably landed in Jamestown on a prisoner-transport ship, and that he grew up in a cabin in the backcountry (in what would become West Virginia), and that he spent time in Haiti. These details point back to the earliest South: the English coastal colonies, as an extension of the West Indian world (many of the first Virginians and Carolinians were born not in the Old World but on the islands). Sutpen arrives with a band of “wild” African slaves, most of whom are unfamiliar with any European tongue: they speak in an island Creole.
In buying his land, which he calls “Sutpen’s Hundred” — the name itself a straining toward colonial affectation — he treats not with a white man but with a local Indian chief, a Chickasaw.
What Faulkner gains from this bundle of references is a suggestion of cycles, of something ongoing. As the Southern frontier murders its way west over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries — a phase absent to the point of amnesia from our national memory, but which re-emerges here like a wriggling worm — the region keeps generating Sutpens, repeating its themes: Indian removal, class resentment and land hunger, as well as a stubborn race hatred that coexists with intense racial intimacy.
Faulkner needed Sutpen’s story to be not just authentically but intrinsically Southern this way, less a symbol than an instance of the Southern principle. Only then does it make an adequate object for Quentin to fixate upon and go mad contemplating.
Absalom, Absalom is an operatic story of power, incest, murder, jealousy, and hatred – the rise and fall of a Southern family; but it is also a chronicle of class, race, and family within the context of the Civil War; and a lyrical narrative told by many tellers.  The language of the book is some of the finest in English.  Here is the very first paragraph of Chapter 1, perhaps one of the very best openings of any novel:
From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler and which as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of old dead dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window blinds as wind might have blown them.  There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came no and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away; and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet, inattentive, and harmless out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.
In this one paragraph, Faulkner creates the atmosphere of the novel, introduces future events (dead sister, father, a husband who might not have been); and introduces the bitter, angry, and frustrated character of Miss Coldfield who dominates the book (in a sense, she is the main character of the book and not Sutpen). 

The rest of the book continues in the same lyrical, expressive way, telling the story of Thomas Sutpen principally through the words, reminiscences, and speculations of Miss Coldfield, Quentin Compson, Quentin’s father and grandfather.  The life of the main characters – Sutpen and his many children, their wives, mistresses and children; their interwoven stories – is created through these narratives. 

Like Browning and others before him, Faulkner tells one story through many different observers.  “There are thirteen ways to see a blackbird”, said Faulkner once, quoting Wallace Stevens, referring to the impossibility of arriving at one truth, one true story, one factual event.

Quentin has gleaned parts of this tale from his father and grandfather, from letters and in-town gossip. This is what Quentin is, we start to see, and what Southerners are or used to be: walking concatenations of stories, drawn or more often inherited from the chaos of the past, and invested here with a special, doom-laden meaning, the nostalgia that borders on nausea — the quality that most truly sets the South apart from other regions, its sheer investment in the meaning of itself. In Quentin this condition has reached the level of pathology.
The Times reviewer, however,  felt that few people understood the book, and only claimed that they had read it:
Of course, it’s the kind of book a person would put first in a poll like that. You can feel reasonably confident, in voting for it, that nobody quite fathoms it enough to question its achievement. Self-consciously ambitious and structurally complex (unintelligible, a subset of not unsophisticated readers has always maintained), “Absalom, Absalom!” partakes of what the critic Irving Howe called “a fearful impressiveness,” the sort that “comes when a writer has driven his vision to an extreme.” It may represent the closest American literature came to producing an analog for “Ulysses,” which influenced it deeply — each in its way is a provincial Modernist novel about a young man trying to awaken from history — and like “Ulysses,” it lives as a book more praised than read, or more esteemed than enjoyed.
Some critics have taken exception with his observation that the book is “self-consciously ambitious…and unintelligible….”.  It is neither.  It requires patience and persistence, but once its internal structure is understood (that the same story is told from different perspectives) and the basic story familiar (it is told for the first time very early on in the book), the reader can begin to focus on the characters, the drama, and the heroic tragedy. 

Faulkner’s prose, like that of Joyce in Ulysses must be approached differently from more traditional novels.  Long poetic passages like the one quoted above, often without punctuation, should be read less severely than more simple, colloquial ones.  It is the feel of that airless room, the frightening picture of the pinched, old, resentful, and vengeful Miss Coldfield that should emerge.  She is a hermit in this dark, dusty place while the outside world is hot, bright, and colorful.  She is hiding from the outside and resides in some kind of terrible inner place.

In that one paragraph we get intimations of the past and her frustrations that have persisted over thirty years; hatred and resentment about which she is now telling to Quentin, finally revealing her story and that of her nemesis, Thomas Sutpen.
[It is] a prose of exceptional vividness. The September afternoon on which the book opens in a “dim hot airless” room is described as “long still hot weary dead.” If you’ve ever taken a creative-writing workshop, you’ve been warned never to do this, pile up adjectives, interpose descriptive terms between the reader’s imagination and the scene. But here something’s different. Faulkner’s choices are so precise, and his juxtaposition of the words so careful in conditioning our sense reception, that he doesn’t so much solve as overpower the problem. The sparrows flying into the window trellis beat their wings with a sound that’s “dry vivid dusty,” each syllable a note in a chord he’s forming. The Civil War ghosts that haunt the room are “garrulous outraged baffled.”
The character of Thomas Sutpen is compelling because of his Nietzschean will. Nietzsche calls for exceptional people to no longer be ashamed of their uniqueness in the face of a supposed morality-for-all, which Nietzsche deems to be harmful to the flourishing of exceptional people. However, Nietzsche cautions that morality, per se, is not bad; it is good for the masses, and should be left to them. Exceptional people, on the other hand, should follow their own "inner law." A favorite motto of Nietzsche, taken from Pindar, reads: "Become what you are."

Nietzsche had an influence on a number of writers – G.B.Shaw, Jack London, and James Joyce – and although there is little scholarship on the matter, I believe that he may have had an influence on Faulkner as well, at least in Absalom, Absalom. Or, perhaps more possibly that Faulkner simply thought like Nietzsche in creating Thomas Sutpen.

Sutpen has what he calls ‘my design’, a plan to become the wealthiest, most powerful landowner in Mississippi if not beyond.  He comes to Mississippi out of the West Virginia hills by way of plantation experience in Haiti and buys ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’ – 100 square miles of land bought from the Indians and worked by his wild (Haitian) slaves, overseen by an indentured French architect, and created out of his vision and realized through the force of his will, all very Nietzschean. 

As part of his design, he knew he had to take a wife who would give him the respectability, if not Southern noble name, which would lend legitimacy to his enterprise.  He understood the way of the South with its strict social codes, differences between whites and blacks, and among blacks and whites themselves.  He felt that marrying Ellen Coldfield would provide the remaining piece to the design.  Little did he know that his life would be dramatically caught up in the politics of class and race.  As each unforeseen and tragic consequence of his first ‘mistake’ – having a mixed-race child by an octoroon mistress/wife in Haiti – occurred, he did not waver, but pursued his design and his dream of wealth, acceptance, and respectability.


Sutpen was a heroic figure.  He resisted an armed slave insurrection in Haiti, saving the plantation owner and his family; and he fought with distinction in the Civil War.  From this perspective – his worthy pursuit of land, respectability, and power – was within the framework of traditional morality; but his obsession with his own succession and the complicating factor of race were outside it and the reasons for his ultimate failure.  He was indifferent to his wife, daughter, and son; dismissive to his dead wife’s sister Rosa (Miss Coldfield), suggesting that they see if she can produce a son, then they would marry; manipulative of his white sharecropper tenant; and abusive and egomaniacally dismissive of his newborn daughter, born of the granddaughter of the sharecropper. 

In other words, his Nietzschean will to succeed carried him through the simpler phases of the plan.  It was relatively easy to dominate the plantation society of Haiti, through the sheer force of will create Sutpen’s Hundred, build the house, and work the land; but will was not enough to dominate his son, Henry; his first-born, mixed-blood Charles Bon, Bon’s mother, Rosa Coldfield, his mixed-race daughter Clytie, or the sharecropper who in an act of rage and outrage and social frustration, finally kills him.

The theme of race is central to the story as it is to the South.  Race is inevitable in Sutpen’s world, and negotiating the subtle and complex world of class, status, and color was always a challenge.  The world of New Orleans was the most complex of all with its slaves, freedmen, half-breeds, and mixed bloods .  While a white man could never consort with a black woman, he could have an octoroon as a concubine.  Octoroons had their own society, one more white than black, and permitted if not encouraged in the more libertine and open society of the city. 

Yet, there were perils as Sutpen found out.  His mixed blood children would prevent him from achieving the Gatsby-esque American dream of status and position.  In another writer’s hands, the following scene would be burlesque, melodrama, and grand guignol (think Eugene O’Neill and Desire Under The Elms or Mourning Becomes Electra).  In Faulkner’s it is a dramatic summation of his problem and his tragedy:
“ — You shall not,” Henry tells Bon, meaning, you shall not marry my sister.
— Who will stop me, Henry?
— No, Henry says. — No. No. No.
Now it is Bon who watches Henry; he can see the whites of Henry’s eyes again as he sits looking at Henry with that expression which might be called smiling. His hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol by the barrel, the butt extended toward Henry.
— Then do it now, he says.
Henry looks at the pistol; now he is not only panting, he is trembling [. . .]
— You are my brother.
— No I’m not. I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry.”

Absalom, Absalom is a novel of great range, power, and depth.  Faulkner dramatizes Southern history, captures the essence of American idealism and dreams, creates a Nietzschean character of dominance and will, leads him to his tragic fall like Shakespeare or Aeschylus, writes prose like lyric poetry, understands the dynamics of family and culture, writes with the real perspective of many viewers, and creates a work of incomparable complexity and fierce passion.  There have been few writers of any generation like him.

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